The Teacher at the Head of the Class

In a 2005 photo, Sally Smith is surrounded by children from the Lab School of Washington. Smith, the school's founder and director, died Saturday.
In a 2005 photo, Sally Smith is surrounded by children from the Lab School of Washington. Smith, the school's founder and director, died Saturday. (By K.k. Ottesen -- Washington Home & Garden)
By Ellen Edwards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 4, 2007

At first glance you might have thought you had come upon some improbable tropical bird, full of color and feathers, dressed in layers of patterns on patterns, a pile of rolling blond curls on her head.

This, of course, is what captivated children when they first looked at Sally Smith, the founder and director of the Lab School of Washington, one of the nation's premier places for students with learning disabilities. She didn't look like any other adult in their experience, and they discovered she didn't think like any other head of school, either.

Sally Smith, who died Saturday from complications of myeloma at 78, looked right back at those young faces and saw potential, intelligence, the charm and grace of childhood.

Where other schools saw kids who didn't pay attention, she saw kids who viewed the world in creative ways. Where other schools saw frustration and anger, she saw kids desperate to learn, and she created a school for them. She gave them respect, she gave them hope and she gave them the tools to succeed.

Her own son's difficulties with learning caused her to look for ways to teach him, and from the beginning, even before she became a nationally known educator, she placed the responsibility directly on adults in charge. In the school handbook, Smith wrote, "our philosophy is based on the belief that a child's failure to learn means that the teaching staff has not yet found a way to help him. It is up to the adults to seek out the routes by which each child learns, to discover his strengths and interests and to experiment until effective techniques are found."

Anyone who ever met Sally has a story to tell. She was larger than life: in her size and presence, in her ambitions, in her throaty voice advocating her ideas. She cultivated artists, and often had them to her Cleveland Park home. She cultivated support for the Lab School, from wealthy and powerful potential donors to parents who could give only their time. Her fundraising gala highlighted learning-disabled achievers, who over the years have included Charles Schwab, Magic Johnson, Robert Rauschenberg, Cher and James Carville. In a closed-door session, the students would face those big names and ask blunt and painful questions: "Did you feel stupid compared with your siblings?" "Were your parents embarrassed by you?" "How did you feel when you were asked to read out loud in class?"

The core of all of Smith's techniques, in her 10 books and the PBS series about her work, is empathy.

I first heard her name a decade ago from a reading specialist in the Midwest when I was beginning to think I might have a dyslexic child.

"You're near Sally Smith's school, aren't you?" she asked me. "That's the place." She said it with such confidence and certainty that I knew I had better figure out who Sally Smith was.

I met Sally first as a reporter, sitting in her office and listening to her talk about students the Lab School has taught. I remember in particular the story of the young boy who was good at numbers but not good at reading. The Lab faculty, which individualizes homework, a study plan, classwork, everything, for every student, put him in charge of the school store. He loved selling things. They found a way to catch his interest and motivate him to learn to read. He grew up and out of Lab, and, Smith boasted, had become a successful businessman.

She talked about another student who learned kinesthetically, through movement. The teachers spread patterns out on the floor for him to learn math, a map for him to learn geography, and he danced his way through learning.

She told me how often tears had been shed in that office, which was crowded with art from students and professionals, and which had an open door policy so vigorously enforced that most people didn't think she even had a door. Parents came to her desperate to find a school where their child would be accepted and challenged, where they could learn and not be warehoused until they dropped out. They brought with them horror stories from other schools that had treated their kids as if they were stupid, made them feel terrible about themselves and chucked them in the corner as a lost cause.

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